Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hey Travelers, Don't Bother Calling

In a previous post I expressed my love for the Travelers, the mysterious race of intergalactic merchants from Starfarers of Catan. I mentioned how I wanted to hang out with them, that they seem cool. I wanted to be friends. Well, I take it all back. If I was to spend any time with them it would merely be to kill them, Tro-Taphon specifically. I blame him for my Starfarers loss the other night, no one else. Just him.

The 5-6 player expansion for Starfarers adds the Travelers to the game as a trade outpost, previously they were just a very generous black ball encounter. It is indisputably the best trade post in the game and the one that all players try to reach first. All of the cards are very good, but the Small Donation card has got to be the most valuable in the game for several reasons. Here is what it does: It allows the player to ask the lead player for a specific resource. If the lead player does not have the card then Tro-Taphon and his scumbag friends take an Upgrade from the lead player’s mother ship. An upgrade! That is absurd. I’m taking this very personally, it’s true. But it is a killer.

So, here’s what happened to me last night. We were playing a five player game of Starfarers (Mike, Katie, Tozer, Danielle, and myself) and I jumped out to an early lead on the strength of some colonies and fame rings. Mike eventually wound up getting a trade ship to the Travelers and got Tro-Taphon on his side. It was a great move for Mike, especially since he was in last place and wasn’t looking to be the lead player anytime soon. Since my lead was pretty substantial I wound up being the victim of his Small Donation for the majority of the game. I lost several resources to him, but the worst part was the lost freight ring and the four lost cannons. I had an abundance of carbon so I was working on a cannon strategy in the hopes of fighting a bunch of pirates and freeing some pirate planets. That went down the drain real fast since I was losing a cannon just about every turn. At one point I had seven cannons (I had picked up the plus two cannons from the Scientists) and was one move away from freeing the (7)Pirate planet. That was the closest I ever got to it. The game unfolded in a wretched manner and Mike wound up winning. I finished with 14 points.

I guess my question is if the Small Donation card is too good? Is it unbalanced to the point that it is foolish not to get it? Let’s see, the only reason to not get it would be if you are in the lead since it won’t help you at all as long as you are winning. You could even make the argument that it would be worth taking it just to prevent someone else from getting it. Compared to other cards it yields much more over the course of the game than a typical card from another trading post. I’m going to make some vast generalizations in an attempt to quantify exactly what this card is worth. Here goes. In an average game of Starfarers there are going to be about 18 turns. Small Donation is going to be one of, if not the, first trade cards picked up. We will say that someone gets it on turn 5 of the game (it is at the far end of the board, so it takes a little while to get there) and begins to use it on turn 6. That is twelve turns that they will have it, and let’s predict that they will take the lead on turn sixteen. That means it will be yielding resources for ten turns and it is guaranteed to produce something every turn. A smart player is going to ask for a resource that they know the lead player does not have, so for seven turns it will yield an upgrade (all of which are worth two resources). Following my fuzzy math that card has yielded 17 resources over the course of the game, plus has the additional effect of taking those resources from the lead player. Wow, that’s a lot. Does anything else even come close? Let’s compare it to some others.

A card from the Scientists is worth four resources (some combination of a booster and a cannon, or two of one type) plus a little bump up since it allows you to get your cannons over six and kill that one real tough pirate. I’ll be generous and say that they are worth five resources each. How about the Green Folk? At most they will yield an extra resource every other turn over the course of the game. Say you get to it early and it starts to pay off right away, it might be worth nine resources over the course of the game. The Merchants are hard to quantify since they allow you to convert your resources into others at a more favorable exchange rate, but it’s really an improvement on something that any player can do regardless. The trade goods one is the most useful, but since it is only usable once a turn I doubt that it is worth more than a couple of resources a game. Let’s be generous and say it’s worth eight resources over the course of the game. What about the Blue Folk? They seem to be sort of a mixed bag of usefulness. Let’s go with the one that is similar to Small Donation. The card (I can’t remember the name) allows the player to take a random card from up to two players, as long as the players have more victory points than the player taking the card. That one is pretty good. It has the potential to generate two resources a round, but they are random so not worth as much as picking a resource. This one puzzles me. I am going to say that it will be useful for half the game in all, but for half of that will only yield one resource. That’s a total of 15 resources, but since they are random I’d say that it is worth about 12 resources altogether. Plus the same bump that Small Donation gets for taking resources from someone. What does this all mean? It means that Small Donation is probably the best card in the game. I can’t even think of the last time we played Starfarers and it was not one of the first cards taken, which shows how highly valued it is.

Am I bitter? Sure. But it’s not so much because I lost but rather that this one card seems to be grossly out of line with other cards in the game. It doesn’t seem fair, not particularly to me but just in the general sense. The point is that if I ever run into Tro-Taphon on the street I’m going to tear him a new mouth.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Campaign Journal #11-The Long Awaited Temple. At Last.

Having dispatched with the winter wolves the party decided to make camp in their mountain lair. Shielded from the elements and easily defensible it made a good temporary base. During the night while on guard duty Glee heard the sound of some falling rocks not far from their location, he awakened Romulus and the two of them stared out into the night, scanning the area for the source of the noise. They spotted a lean, muscular figure climbing across the face of the mountain opposite where they were, several hundred feet on the other side of the valley. Before they could react the figure disappeared into a small cave opening on the side of the rock.

The next morning Glee and Romulus filled the others in on what happened during the night. Packing up they traveled along the mountain tops with the goal of ultimately winding up above the cave opening that they had seen. After being on the move for about an hour they came across a herd of mountain goats, they were doing goat like things. One of the goats seemed larger than the others and had a long black beard. Immediately suspicious of anything even slightly abnormal the party attacked the strange goat, sending arrows and fireballs it’s way. The goats did not last long; some were pierced by arrows, others done in by a fiery ball of destruction, and others leapt to their death in the confusion. Expecting to find the corpse of a wild shaped druid the party was somewhat surprised by what appeared to be body of an ordinary goat. Suspicious indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pandemic: On The Brink- Virulent Strain

Just when we were starting to get the hang of Pandemic and reel off some consecutive wins we decided to start to use the On The Brink expansion, thus once again endangering the world and setting back our success considerably. On The Brink comes with a bunch of goodies including new Roles, Special Events, and extra scenarios. Of the three additional games in the expansion the Virulent Strain challenge is currently my favorite.

In the Virulent Strain challenge one of the four viruses takes on deadly new properties. It¹s virtually the same game as the original Pandemic, except that the Epidemic cards are replaced with new Virulent Strain Epidemic cards. Otherwise it plays the same way. All of the new Epidemic cards function just like the Epidemic cards from the original set (i.e. Increase, Infect, Intensify), except they all have one added nasty effect that impacts the virulent strain for that game. When the first Epidemic card comes up during the game the color that currently has out the most cubes becomes the virulent strain for the rest of the game; making it tougher, harder to cure, and usually more abundant as it seeks to infect the known world. Or at least one localized quarter of it. The added effects vary from card to card and depending on when you get them in the game can be completely lethal. Some of them are one time effects, others are continual and will torment you until the game comes to it¹s (bitter) conclusion.

One that I’ve found to be particularly difficult is the Complex Molecular Structure, which increases the number of cards needed to cure the virulent strain by one. This can be an absolute devestator of an effect if there is no role suited to curing with fewer cards. Needing six cards of a color to cure a virus (out of a total of twelve) is crippling in several regards. First off, when playing with three or more players each player is most likely not going to see six cards of the same color over the course of the game (they are probably not going to see five either) which means that the difficult practice of trading cards will have to come into play. Second, it also means that only six cards of a particular color can be discarded over the course of the game, either from chartering flights, building stations, or discarding for being over the hand limit. Getting the right cards into the right hands is really the key to the game. A lot of it also has to do with the number of players. Have too few players and you will wind up discarding cards that will come back to haunt you. Have too many players and the Player Cards will run out after each player has only had a couple of turns, thus really limiting the chance of getting the needed number to cure.

Slippery Slope is another one that will push the world to the brink of extermination. A continuing effect, it causes each outbreak of the virulent strain to move the Outbreak Marker two spaces instead of one. That can end the world in a hurry. Of course, not all are deadly as these two, but none of them are pleasant.

One of the aspects of the On The Brink expansion that I find interesting is that, unlike most game expansions, it just makes the game harder. A lot of expansions do nothing other than introduce new characters or make the map bigger, ultimately making the game easier in some cases by giving the players a larger arsenal of options to work with. Not so with this one. Additionally, the Virulent Strain contains eight Epidemic cards, allowing the players to really test their skill by having one more potential epidemic than in the original game. I have to say that I think that Pandemic is absolutely one of the best games around, probably the best game that we’ve added to our group since the classic Starfarers of Catan. Having an expansion that really enhances the game only makes it that much better.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Campaign Journal #10- The Battle of Bowerstone

…as the party stepped out of the Church and into the street it was obvious that combat was imminent. A group of a dozen half orcs armed with longswords and shields were quickly approaching, looks of anger and revenge flashed on their piggish faces. The party surveyed the area and also saw two more figures, an archer on an adjacent rooftop and the elven female spellcaster who was part of the ambush on the party several nights prior. Everyone leapt into action, thirsty for blood and fighting for survival!

Henri lobbed a fireball at half the approaching group, burning the lot of them but they remained on their feet. Romulus and Glee paired up and tried to take out the other mob, working together with their team flanking tactics and cutting through flesh as if it was paper. Mgabwe started to buff up before heading into melee and was struck by a cluster of arrows from an unseen assailant, he spied a ninja on the roof of the Church for a moment before the figure vanished. Finally becoming comfortable in her support role, Lela went about buffing up the party with haste, bardic music, and healing when they needed it. I was surprised to see the initial onslaught of the party focus on the rank and file goons that were approaching them, rather than on the clearly more dangerous trio that was beginning to do some serious damage. A ray of enfeeblement from Mgabwe left the archer too weak to pull his composite bow, but the mysterious ninja moved around the battlefield invisibly and caused some grievous wounds with sudden striking nunchakus.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Campaign Journal #9- The Day the Music Died

The party decided that they were done with Bowerstone and were ready to move onto other adventures. I agree, four whole nights of gaming is a long time to spend in one town, even if it is as seedy and filled with adventure as Bowerstone is. However, before leaving there was the small matter of the Association and a certain do-wop group that needed to be taken care of. The group spent about half a day getting some more supplies around town to prepare for their journey back into the mountains and towards the medusas, the goal being to make it to the far off temple that they had seen perched away atop the mountain range. Also, Lela penned a letter to Mrs. Goldborn informing her that she would not be making it to her scheduled performance for the birthday party.

No one likes a bully and the party decided that before leaving they would kill the lead singer of the Dockside Boys, the charming Swooner Simon Schooner. After seeing Simon interact with Abraham at the Squires Club they had pegged the crooner as a rat, since he had seen the party leaving the docks after stealing a package, which then led to the initial encounter with Abraham. Simon had to die, it was that simple. Plus, Glee has had a long standing hatred of the man since first encountering him on the street. Smart enough to realize that murdering the well liked and well connected Schooner will probably spell the end of their time in Bowerstone they planned their assault very carefully.

Touch of Evil - The Delion Dryad

Poor Shadowbrook.  As if it’s not bad enough that this quaint hamlet is constantly under assault by evil Scarecrows, savage Werewolves, and Vampires that turn into mist, but now it has fallen under the enchanting spell of the Delion Dryad!  The Delion Dryad scenario for Touch of Evil is available free from the Flying Frog website (get it here), which is pretty awesome.  Touch Of Evil is not a particularly cheap game, usually going for around $50 so it’s very nice to see the designer encourage players to create their own scenarios and also to give away some free content.  Well done.

Cris and I played a cooperative game the other night against the Dryad and we found her to be a pretty challenging opponent.  The Dryad starts the game with a six combat and four wounds, unlike all the other villains who have five and five.  But there are numerous ways for her to increase her wounds throughout the game, so don’t expect to fight a lightweight.  The earlier a showdown can get started with the Dryad the better off the hero(es) is, but there are a couple of obstacles in the way.  For starters the Dryad has the Sorceress ability which protects her from heroes who rely only on brute strength.  If a hero has a Cunning and Spirit combined score of less than eight only sixes will hit the Dryad in a fight, so only a foolish hero will jump into an early showdown (the otherwise feeble Victor Danforth is the only one who meets this requirement at the onset of the game).  Shadow of the Season grants the Dryad an extra wound marker every time the Shadow Track passes into a new stage, either back or forth so the players needs to be careful if they move it around or the Dryad will continue to grow in power.  Additionally, the Dryad has the potential to lure town elders to her side for the showdown to protect her with the Enchantment ability.  Whenever a “Murder” card is played or a one or two rolled on the minion chat there is a chance that multiple elders will have enchantment markers places on them, the more they have at the start of the showdown the better chance that they will join the evil nature spirit and crush Shadowbrook. 

The minions following the Dryad are a mixed bunch.  She has wolves, which are nothing special and usually pretty easy to deal with.  However the Living Trees are another matter.  They are automatically placed in a random location each mystery phase, which means that it does not take very long for evil plants to overrun the board.  Pretty early in our game the other night all four corner locations had Living Trees, which made it very tough to get anything.  I was Thomas the Courier and was knocked unconscious at least three times by them in the first several turns of the game, the fact that Thomas is sort of a wimp wasn’t helping.  The Trees have four wounds and three fight dice, but they only hit on a six when attacking.  But their blows are fierce and do two hits each.  On the bright side any hero with a torch gets a +2 to their fight dice, making the torch a cost effective way to do battle.  Plus, they are worth five investigation points. 

Also on the minion chart is the Creeping Brambles event, which is sort of feast or famine for the players.  When it comes up every hero has to make an Honor 6+ test or lose D6 investigation, however each success garners the hero a +1 Cunning, Spirit, or Honor marker.  That certainly helps to get past the Sorceress power, but can completely sap a players investigation reserve and thus delay when the player can fight the Dryad. 

I consider the Dryad to be a rather capable opponent.  Cris and I were victorious against her, but by the time we won Thomas had been knocked unconscious in the showdown and the shadowtrack was down to one, so it’s not like we had an easy time of things.  Honestly, if it was not for Isabella’s Manipulation ability we would have been done for.  Strategy wise it’s hard to say who works best in this scenario.  Because of the Dryad’s abilities and some of her minions all of the stats are needed, so a well rounded character probably works best.  Especially if they can avoid fights early on and get an item or two to help out against the Living Trees which are going to be all over the place.  The torch can be discarded against the Dryad for an extra four Fight Dice, which makes it almost a must have for this scenario. 

I think that anyone who plays Touch of Evil should immediately go and download the Delion Dryad.  It’s free and it will show Frying Frog that they should make more free scenarios.  Sounds like a win win situation. 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Campaign Journal #8- Burning Bridges in a Town with No Bridges

Again the party found themselves beginning the adventure in town. They still had some time to kill while waiting for payment from Lord Monty and for Lela’s performance at the Goldborn residence in several days, though they suspected things may be a little dicey around Bowerstone considering the heist at the docks from the prior night. That morning Mgabwe purchased a scroll of Break Enchantment and used it to free Al’londia from her stony constraints. A bit bitter, but more anxious to stretch her legs the elf departed from the party, vowing to regroup at a later date.

Deciding it was in their best interest to figure out what was happening in town Lela, Henri, and Romulus went out on a fact finding mission to gauge the town views on what happened at the docks the night before. The extremely charming Lela set to work and learned that some were talking about the incident, but it by no means dominated the news cycle. However it was clear that Arlen Starcrush was the target of the heist since it was his package that was stolen and not much else. The party was predictably concerned about making enemies with a retired conjurer.

Glee went out to spend some party gold at Up in Arms, the weapon shop run by Percy the survivalist nut orc. After trying on many items he settled on a +1 Greatsword and a suit of +1 glamered studded leather. Like I had mentioned in a previous post

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bohnanza Revisited

Recently our gaming group has played a couple of games of Bohnanza, everyone’s favorite bean farming game. However, I’ve had to reconsider some of my thoughts on the game because two aspects of it. One, we actually have not been playing the game the correct way. Two, Bohnanza is an excellent two player game.

So, apparently we’ve been playing Bohnanza all wrong the entire time. I feel foolish about it, especially since I’m usually the one who reads the rules and figures out how games work. While playing the other night Cris pointed out that she thought we were doing a couple of things wrong. Turns out she was right. Apparently she learned something about farming this summer. Somehow I manage to totally misinterpret two pretty important rules and created a new version of the game, one that breaks from the actual game in a couple of key aspects. In a strange twist the rules that we’ve been playing with are like a Bizarro version, here’s what we’ve been doing. The first mistake was allowing a player to dig up any bean field when they had to plant and had no open spaces, rather than the actual rule of harvesting the bean field that is the largest. Pretty big difference? It is, though the other one is even more significant, I think. During the donation and auction phase of the turn a player can turn down a donation from another player, we had been playing that you must take any cards that the other player gives to you. Which was often a very destructive way to play the game, essentially because your opponent was giving you cards that you had to play. If we had only done one of these wrong I don’t think the game would have worked and we would have been left scratching our heads (and probably figured out how it actually works), but with both mistakes they sort of cancelled each other out. Here is the difference; in the correct version a player has a great deal of control over what they plant in their fields, however when forced to plant they can’t control what gets dug up. In our renegade version a player was often forced into planting cards that they did not want, however they had total control over what was harvested. In the end our game worked fine, but I do think that the actual rules are the better ones.

I’m not sure why I read the rules this way, they are pretty clear. Not having to accept donations is even printed in bold! So how did this happen? I have a theory. When we first got Bohnanza earlier this year and started playing it a bunch, we had just come out of a phase of playing a lot of Munchkin. Because of the cut-throat nature of Munchkin I think that we were in the mindset that the goal of games is to screw the other players and make their life miserable, therefore it made perfect sense that you would be sticking it to the other bean farmers by forcing wax beans into their plentiful fields of cocoa and black eyed. And considering how much we embraced this idea one thing is quite clear. We are rotten people who delight in making games harder for one another.

The more pleasant discovery involving Bohnanza is that it is a really great two player game. There are several key changes to the game from the normal version, but simple changes that are easy to adapt to. The biggest difference is that any cards left over during the auction phase do not have to be taken by the player or traded, any beans left stay on the board and the opposing player has the option of taking or discarding these beans at the beginning of their turn. The other interesting wrinkle is that the top card in the discard pile is added to the face up auction cards if they match. For example: a green bean is put face up during step three of the turn, the top card in the discard pile is also a green bean, so the discarded bean is placed on top of the other one creating a stack of two cards that can be taken by the player or traded. This creates a whole new strategy that involves selling off at key times and creating large piles on the board. I highly recommend the two player variant of Bohnanza. Twice Mike and I played last night (he won once, and we tied the other) and I suspect we will play again soon.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Campaign Journal #7- Heist at the Docks

After a couple of days of relaxing around town and gathering information, the party was clearly lusting for combat and treasure, fortune and (mis)adventure. Gathered at the house they have rented from Lord Montgomery the party weighed the options before them; a return to the Medusa mountains, investigating spies on behalf of the DuChamp family, trying to learn more about the mysterious child in their care, and slaughtering everything that crosses their path. While pondering these lofty issues there was a knock at the door. A messenger from Lord Monty said that the shady nobleman wanted to see them immediately.

After traveling up the hill to his house, Lord Monty presented them with a job. Due to the illegal nature of it he withheld the details until they accepted, though he assured them it was suited to their strengths and that it would pay very generously.

Touch of Evil review

An evil force has descended upon the small town of Shadowbrook; killing the town elders, terrorizing the countryside, and unleashing hordes of minions on the roads to devour all travelers unlucky enough to enter into this sleepy little hamlet. It is up to a motley assortment of playwrights, nobles, and school teachers to save the town and defeat the monster lurking in the shadows. In A Touch of Evil players take on the roles of citizens in colonial America attempting to hunt down this greater evil and save the day. Much like it’s predecessor Last Night on Earth (the only other offering from Flying Frog Games), A Touch of Evil has multiple scenarios, characters, and a narrative story telling element that runs through the game. I’m a big fan of LNOE so I was eager to give this game a try and see what it had going for it.

The look of the game is very similar to LNOE, with actors portraying the characters and depicting the events on the various cards in the game. Personally, I like the look of it. In some ways it seems a little too slick, but I think it holds together nicely and is certainly a nice change of pace from the art in most games out there. The characters are all represented by somewhat bland grey figurines, they have a decent amount of detail to differentiate themselves from one another, but I found that we all had take a second look throughout the game to make sure that we were moving the right piece. Some of the pieces were also a little bent coming out of the box, Thomas the Courier has a strange lean to him that resembles Michael Jackson in the Moonwalker video. There are also a ton of small cardboard tiles that go along with the game. They represent minions, attribute boosts, wounds, and a million other aspects of the game. Some tiles don’t really have a function in the game; players are encouraged to create scenarios and use these extra tiles. I don’t think this open philosophy works as well in TOE as it does in LNOE since the game is essentially wed to the basis of heroes hunting down a monster, as opposed to LNOE where the goal for each game can vary greatly with both the heroes and the zombies being the protagonist in any given scenario. I don’t see how TOE can exist as anything other than the heroes going after the monster, though I suppose some custom scenarios can add a twist to this.

Another aspect of the components that really jumped out at me when I was opening the game was how small the actual game board is. Really, it’s almost tiny which I found to be silly. Then we played and noticed how many peripherals wind up surrounding the game. There are numerous stacks of cards, counters, minions, the villain sheet, the characters, and others. Taking those into account the game actually has a pretty big footprint on one’s gaming table. So clearly it was a good idea to make the board on the smaller side, otherwise it would actually be pretty gigantic.

The object of the game is to hunt down the creature to it’s lair and defeat it in combat, thus saving the town. There are four possible villains operating behind the scenes. The Spectral Horseman, Vampire, Werewolf, and Scarecrow each have different powers and minions to unleash on the heroes. It is also possible for no player to emerge victorious and for evil to triumph. The game contains a shadowtrack that starts at 20, throughout the game certain actions cause it to go down. If the shadowtrack ever goes below 1 then the game is lost as the villains hold on Shadowbrook becomes complete. Scary times. The cost of purchasing a lair card also decreases as the shadowtrack moves down, which figures into the strategy in the game.

The game itself plays pretty easy for the most part, though the end showdown with the villain seems a little bit confusing. Players go in order (beginning with the First Player, a title which moves each round) and only have a couple of choices available to them. They roll and move around the board, fight any monsters they may pass, and then encounter the space that they are in. Encountering the space can produce a myriad of results; from being attacked by a minion, finding a treasure, drawing an event card, and others. After this they can also purchase a lair card, peek at a town elder’s secret, or heal a wound. Very easy to manage. After each player has done this a Mystery card is drawn and the results applied. The Mystery card represents the villain exerting his power over the area and usually has negative consequences for everyone involved. It’s similar to the Infection deck in Pandemic or the Black cards in Shadows Over Camelot.

When a lair card has been purchased a player may travel to the location named on the card and fight the villain, with victory in this combat winning the game. The villains are very tough and help is usually required in the battle, help which takes the form of the town elders. A group of six mysterious citizens, the elders come to the aid of the hero in the climactic showdown. Before the fight begins the hero has the option of taking up to two of these people to assist in his fight, but there is a twist. At the start of the game each elder is randomly given a secret card. Some of the secrets have no effect, some have a positive affect, and others are negative and take the form of the elder secretly plotting with the villain. Because of this it is essential that the player investigate the elders before enlisting their aid, it’s a nasty surprise to find out that your ally Lord Holbrook is actually in cahoots with the evil Scarecrow. Once an elder has been revealed as evil he stays with the villain for the rest of the game. I think. This is one of the areas where the game is not all that clear on what happens. My biggest complaint with the showdown is that in both of the games that we played the same thing happened. One of the players challenged the villain and damaged it, but eventually came up short. Right after this the next player challenged it and was able to defeat it because the villain did not have a chance to heal it’s wounds. It doesn’t seem all that heroic to sneak up on the vampire and take him out because someone else brought him to death’s door.

The general theme of the game is that the players are investigating the mystery and ultimately trying to track the villain down to his lair and slay it. Feeding into this players collect investigation points for most things that they do. Battle a minion and kill it? Get some investigation points to reflect what you learned from it. Encounter a creepy scene in the Abandoned Keep? Investigation points represent clues left at the spot. Investigation points are essentially the currency of the game and can be used to purchase items, learn secrets, and hunt down the monster.

The heroes in the game are an interesting mix of colonial types. We’ve got a soldier, some nobles, an investigator, even a playwright. The characters in the game all have a special ability or two, and a score in four attributes; Spirit, Cunning, Combat, and Honor. These stats are frequently used to determine the success of an investigation using a target number system. Example: when encountering a ghost in the Olde Woods a player is required to make a 5+ Spirit check, with each result garnering an investigation point. Say you have a Spirit of 3, you would then roll 3 dice and each result of 5 or higher counts as a success and gets you a point. Areas of the board focus on certain skills, so it makes sense to hang around the Windmill if Cunning is a strongpoint for your character.

Combat is also an integral part of the game, with the heroes frequently finding themselves waylaid by Barghest Hounds and Ghost Soldiers. One of the aspects of combat that I do like is that all the rolls are resolved simultaneously, so even if you kill the Feral Kin in one round it still has a chance to inflict some wounds on you. One of the odder aspects of combat, and one that I don’t like as much, is that you can’t really get killed. If a character fills up all their wound markers they are merely moved back to Town Hall, with no long term loss. Due to the sequence of the turn though it may result in the loss of a turn for the character if they are defeated turning the Mystery phase, rather than during their turn.

I’m a fan of games that are able to weave together good mechanics with a plot that works well with the game elements, and this is something that TOE does really well. I like the way that the Mystery cards show the power and influence of the villain in a sneaky way. Like any good mastermind they deal from the shadows and operate in back channels. They assassinate elders, send out henchmen, and corrupt the townsfolk. There is nothing groundbreaking about the way that the game runs, I feel like I’ve seen a variation of just about all the rules in one game or another. But that should not take away from the fun of the game, which is in ample supply.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Campaign Journal #6- Men About Town

For the first time since the initial adventure in the campaign the party is back in town, having arrived at Bowerstone early in the morning after traveling through the night. Because of real world obligations Al’londia, Mgabwe, and Henri would not be with us, leaving the party of Glee, Romulus, and Lela alone to get into all sorts of trouble. The entire adventure was spent in the town; making contacts, setting up future work engagements, buying and selling, and nearly blinding half of the town’s residents.

Lela had her scheduled debut performance at the Bandit Mask the evening that they arrived. After getting some rest she headed over to the place and found that she was the opening act for someone named Vinegar Bend, a lute player who seemed to have a following in the region. Prior to the performance Lela had purchased a new pearl buttoned fancy outfit from the Silver Needle, a high end clothing shop in town. Originally hesitant to spend the money (450gp), she returned and bought the outfit after attempted bullying of the shopkeeper on the part of Romulus. It did nothing to lower the price. Back at the tavern the crowd seemed lively and Lela launched into her distinctive brand of storytelling whistling, recounting the recent saga of the medusas without words.

Fochlucan Lyrist prestige class

When I first read about the Fochlucan Lyrist I thought it was about the most powerful prestige class I had seen. I mean really, it has a ton of stuff going for it. But then I looked into it some more and thought that it was actually one of the worst because of the requirements to get into it. Now? I’m not so sure what to think about it. For starters, what is this class? It appears to be some sort of nature bard that is skilled in the social arts. A lot of times I like to look at a class and try to find an example of it from history, literature, film, or whatever. The best comparable I could come up with for the Fochlucan Lyrist is Tom Bombadil. Diplomat, warrior, and all around nature expert. Seems like a pretty good fit, so that is kind of what I have in mind when picturing this class. Bombadil was quite the enigma, so how does this play out as a D&D character. Let’s take a look.

The vitals for the class are the best in all of D&D, I’m pretty certain of this. Two good saves (Will and Reflex), full Base Attack, 6+ skill points a level, and a d6 Hit Die. The Hit Die is really the only non awesome part of that. But it gets better. It also has full advancement of both arcane and divine magic, and advances Bardic Music and Bardic Knowledge. Wow, that is a ton of features for one class. It excels in every aspect of character development and, as a ten level prestige class, there is plenty to go around. The only ability it gets (aside from the above) is Unbound at 1st level, which allows them to look past the druids non metal armor taboo, letting them where light metal armor with no spell failure. So what’s the downside?

The requirements for the Lyrist are very demanding, but they are actually a good set of skills to have. There are just a lot of them. Unlike some other classes that essentially have some requirements that are a throwaway to just get into the class, all of the prerequisites for the Lyrist are worthwhile, just very spread out and require multiple sources. To enter into the esteemed Fochlucan College a character must be able to cast 1st level arcane and divine spells, have bardic knowledge, evasion, a neutral alignment (but not LN), seven ranks of Decipher Script (that may be the only clunker), Diplomacy, Gather Information, Knowledge (Nature), and Sleight of Hand, 13 ranks of Perform (Stringed), and speak Druidic. That is a ton of stuff and, while individually all good, they don’t happen to synergize all that well as far as source is concerned. So what are we looking at here? At least one level of bard and druid, plus two levels of rogue for evasion (though I suppose you could also take nine levels of ranger, though that seems weird). However, since the Perform needs 13 ranks a character can’t get into the class until their 11th level, so that leaves six levels to play around with. This character is sort of rooted in a well rounded concept, so I think that spreading it around may be the best option. My favorite would be Rogue 3/Bard 4/Druid 3 before entering. In the end that would wind up with a +17 Base Attack, 5th level Bard spells, 7th level Druid spells, and a ton of skill points. That’s a nice character who probably has a trick for all situations, though it lacks a real niche that lets it dominate situations.

The other big issue with the Lyrist is what to do with your attributes? Charisma and Wisdom probably get the two highest for the spell casting and the skill bonuses, though I see why someone would want to emphasize Dexterity as well. This character seems like they should be brilliant because of all their abilities, so Intelligence seems like it should be high as well. But from a mechanical standpoint it is not nearly as important because of all the skill points it has to play with. As with all characters Con would be great to have, especially due to the poor hit die. Strength would probably wind up on the bottom, though some buff spells are readily available to the Lyrist. If your DM lets you trade out the Druid’s companion it’s probably a good option, since it’s not going to get real powerful. If you’re stuck with it Natural Bond is probably a good feat. Anything that can capitalize on a high Wis or Cha is also a good choice.

Ultimately I think that this class is really fun because it has so many options, there are very few things that it can’t do. However, in a high powered game it will be probably be outclassed by the full casters and the hardcore melee builds. The smaller the party the more useful this class is though, since it can fill so many roles. The Lyrist makes a good healer, scout, party face, support combatant, and buffer of allies. In a heavy role play game it will frequently find itself as a focal point. It also seems to not be a great choice for a game that begins at low levels because of how spread out the abilities are and how long it takes to qualify for the class. Not sure how fun it is to have all of your skills be spread out and casting 2nd level spells when your allies are casting 5th. As an NPC or a villain it also has real issues, so much of it’s strengths are related to depth and having a ton of options, things that don’t necessarily add up to a great challenge for the PC’s. I like this class for a couple of reasons and feel that it brings a bunch to the table. I also think that the requirements for entry do a good job of balancing the power of the class; it can’t get to 9th level casting, suffers in Base Attack a bit, and has hit points on the low end.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Campaign Journal #5- Lair of the Giant Snake

The party began the night’s adventure atop the mountains they had flown to after Henri crashed their boat along the rocky canal leading to the sea. While traversing the craggy landscape they had a pair of encounters; a trio of flying hipprogriffs were attacked by Glee the moment that they came into range, and then Romulus and Henri were surprised by a dire lion during their watch when camping. Neither battle was intended to be particularly challenging, though some hijinks ensued when Henri turned invisible and fled, leaving Romulus to deal with the enormous lion on his own. He scored a paired a criticals which probably saved his half orc hide.

For the first time they are also doing some traveling with young Fiona and some accommodations had to be made for the infant turned adventurer. Due to her entertaining whistling and ability to cast

Books About Games

It’s not possible to play games all the time, so sometimes I have to read books about games. Recently I’ve come across two that each present a different take on the world of gaming, and both I would recommend to the game enthusiast. The Elfish Gene is a personal memoir about growing up as a D&D player in the early years of the game, while Hobby Games: The 100 Best is a collection of essays about some of the more important board and card games out there.

In the Elfish Gene (2007) author Mark Barrowcliffe recalls the days of his youth in Coventry, England as a somewhat obsessed D&D player. Actually, really obsessed. To the point that it was pretty much his 24/7 existence for several years. At times very funny and at other times touching, the book does a really nice job of capturing the thrill of discovering the world’s greatest hobby and setting it against the awkward adolescence backdrop of being a youth in working class England. We learn about some of his characters, adventures, and even the shops he would game at. What I think that Barrowcliffe does best is somehow make the minutiae of RPGs not only seem like the most important thing in the world, but also accessible to someone that has not wasted away the hours of their youth in a dimly lit garage hoping to defeat a hydra or gelatinous cube. He includes enough references to the actual mechanics of D&D to keep the gaming audience happy (thoughts on the AC system, excitement over campaign settings, damage from various weapon types) but that’s not really the heart of the matter. Like any other memoir it is about a place and time, and Barrowcliffe paints a wonderful picture of his upbringing and what the hobby meant to him. Like many of us, he experience highs and lows through D&D (other games too, most notably Traveler and Empire of the Petal Throne) and learned a lot about himself through fantasy roleplaying. Corny and weird? Absolutely. But if you are reading this there is an excellent chance that you can relate. I’ve noticed that D&D and other games are becoming more popular. Maybe this is just a perception on my part, I suppose I could do some research to find if it is true, but I wonder if books like this will become more common. There certainly seems to be a market for it. I’d also like to add that he sticks to the subject matter, very few passages in the book do not relate directly to roleplaying, which is nice. There are a couple of humorous stories thrown in that deal with other issues, but there’s nothing wrong with that. If nothing else this book is worth it to read the story about how he learned to make fireballs using lighter fluid, balloons, and his DM’s bathroom.

I bought Hobby Games: The 100 Best (2007) thinking that it would be a ranking of the 100 best games ever made, but that’s not really what it is. The book is about 100 games, but they are listed in alphabetical order rather than in order of greatness. The essays are short (around three pages) and written by industry insiders and game creators, so it is not just the fan perspective that they are written from, but from what I guess would be considered the informed. The choices range from very obscure (such as Blood Bowl, I had never heard of it), to the routine (Settlers of Catan), and pretty much everything in between. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about games it is very appealing to me to read what these industry folks think about what makes a game great. Some I agree with, others I do not. I even went out and bought a couple of these games based on what people wrote about them. I don’t think this book is for everyone, at times I wasn’t even sure that it was me, but if you are not interested in a certain game you can move on to the next one.

Solo games don’t interest me all that much, I like the social aspect of gaming far too much. It’s not the competitor in me that revels in gaming, but rather the same guy who likes to sit at a bar and chat someone up. But I can’t always do that. So these books are a nice way to enter into the world of gaming without actually having to go anywhere.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Campaign Journal #4- Come Sail Away. Or Not.

After having killed the forces guarding The Cage and exploring the prison, the PC’s decided to rest up a bit in the fortress. They have also chosen to take the small child that they found in the cell and bring her along on their adventures. Convinced that she is worth some money they are going to try and find out more about her.

While taking shifts on guard duty, Romulus spotted some movement in the valley leading to the prison. After a moment Romulus recognized the figure as Al’londia, who was trying to silently communicate with him. Unable to figure out her message, eventually Mgabwe flew down to her and brought her into the fort. Al’londia informed the rest of the party that there was a group of mounted knights traveling in the valley to the prison, one of which had a banner bearing the symbol of the DuChamp family affixed to their saddle. They also appeared to have a captive with them. Knowing that they were going to arrive at the fort in the next couple of hours the PC’s got

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shadows Over Camelot: Session Review

I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to cooperative games our group has really been struggling of late. I’m not sure why this is, but one game that has been a particular thorn in our collective side is the otherwise excellent Shadows Over Camelot . We have a lot of fun playing it, yet in the end the ominous clouds swell over the Round Table and reign supreme as Camelot falls. Perhaps that makes it seem a bit dramatic, but it’s the truth. One thing I will say is that we’ve gotten slightly better each time we’ve played it. We had the four person crew the other night, strapped on our plate mail, and decided to give it another shot. Going in we realized that helping each other out and behaving like gentlemanly knights was the path to success, we made that our primary strategy. No one would be running off on foolish quests for glory while the kingdom crumbled. We randomly drew knights as follows; I was Sir Percival, Katie was the Saracen Knight Palamedes, Mike the valiant and pure Sir Galahad, and Nick was King Arthur. We were ready to go.

In the first couple of rounds Percival and Arthur joined forces to defeat an army of invading Picts, earning some cards and our first white sword. That will teach those barbarians! Throughout the game we all frequently used the ability to sacrifice a life to take an extra action, usually when moving to a new area and then to immediately play a card. It’s very helpful. Knowing that if you defeat a challenge you will earn more life lessens the blow of the heroic sacrifice. Our victory was followed by a brave display of arms by Sir Galahad in the Black Knights Tournament, besting him soundly (despite the presence of what Mike deemed, in knightly speak, “a combatant of Jet Li type prowess”). In the meantime Palamedes was struggling by himself to save Exaclibur. Two other issues had arisen as well; the Lancelot Quest was bordering on being unwinnable due to the accumulation of several cards for Lancelot and none for us, the Grail Quest seemed extremely dire as well. The Dark Forest card came into play shortly after the victory in the Tournament. This card prevented any knight from playing a Grail card until a quest was successfully completed. At this point we were not even close to winning any, having just completed two. Plus, the Grail cards were piling up. The Grail Quest is sort of a big deal, it’s worth three swords for either side and a ton of white cards if the knights win it. This was where we really came together as true Knights of the Round Table. We all hustled to over to Excalibur to lend support to Palamedes and save the legendary sword. With the four of us working together on it we saved the sword from plunging into the murky depths of the lake. Fittingly it was Sir Palamedes who earned the sword (fitting because he has been there for a while and prevented it from being lost). Not only did we earn more white swords but we were now able to continue the quest for the Grail since the Dark Forest card was now out of play.

Right around this time we also discovered the great pairing that is Arthur and Galahad. Arthur has the power to, once a turn, give a card to another knight in exchange for a card. Galahad can, once a turn, play a special white card in his hand for no action point. Whenever Arthur had a special white he would pass it on to Galahad who could play it without the cost of a point. It worked out really well for all of us, especially since the special whites usually benefit the whole company it did not matter who played it. The net gain was several actions over the course of the game, which really goes a long way. The good knights were able to put their egos aside for the greater good of the kingdom.

At this point we had four white swords and two black ones, we could see how the end game was going to play out. To insure victory we needed to have seven white swords and last until the Round Table had a total of twelve swords. Galahad, Arthur, and Palamedes all went over to the Grail Quest to save the cup. Percival (myself) had nothing to contribute to the Grail Quest so I traveled to Camelot and began to battle the siege engines that were building up. The Knights had been unable to play any Grail cards for a while since the Dark Forest card was in play, so we had a bunch built up. The three of them were able battle the forces of evil and had the Grail on the verge of victory. Palamedes then played the Heroism card, which would earn us an extra white sword if we won. On the next turn Arthur saved the sacred cup and earned us four (!) more swords, bringing our total to eight! Victory would be ours if we could survive. With the Grail and Excalibur quests completed the siege engines were coming at a furious rate and Percival was being overwhelmed as the lone warrior defending the castle. The other knights joined him in defense, battling the invading forces. Palamedes fell in battle on the fields of Camelot, but was saved when Arthur, brave King that he is, sacrificed the recently earned Grail to provide him with new life. Such camaraderie.

We were in a strange position at this point. We had the game won once more swords were added to the table. However we did not want to leave Camelot to complete another quest because of all the siege engines, so we bided our time. Eventually the Black Knights Tournament was lost, placing a 12th sword on the Round Table. Sure, we were a bit ashamed to lose to such a coward, but the war was won! There was much rejoicing in the halls of Camelot that night.

I think that we took a big step forward in team tactics with this victory. Shadows Over Camelot is a game that really requires everyone to work together, the lone knight does not stand a chance. We also realized that it is very hard to win the game if the very difficult Grail Quest is not won. Seven black swords loses the game for the knights, and that quest alone provides three of them. I think that we did really well. At no point were we ever in serious danger. We recognized threats before they became mortal danger, cooperated, and helped one another. Perhaps we are actually ready to try the game with a traitor. And honestly the best part of this game is speaking in that bizarre Knightly vernacular that is encouraged by the game designers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Campaign Journal #3- Prison Break(in)!

We started off the night’s adventuring with the PC’s having just survived an ambush from a group of medusa archers. Post battle Romulus climbed up to the ledge that one of the archers was attacking from to discover that there was a cave that led further back into the mountains, there was also a similar one on the opposite side of the valley. I was a bit surprised to see how eager the party was to explore the cavernous tunnels, though it was somewhat in character for the group. If there is even a chance that there could be some gold stashed away they are all about it. At this point Al’landia decided to head back into the valley from the way that they came to cover up their tracks and see if they were being followed (the player for Al’landia was unable to make the session, so this was her exit). Romulus threw a rope down to the rest and within moments they were creeping through a narrow corridor, heading deeper into the mountains. Again they were let down by their perception abilities (Spot and Search in this case) and walked right into a trip wire that sprung a falling rock trap. It didn’t do a lot of damage, but certainly served as an alarm for whoever may be lurking in the darkness.

The God of Cheap Game Pieces

Zeus and Hera deserve better. I think it would invoke the wrath of two of the major gods from the Greek pantheon to see that they have been reduced to poorly produced line drawings on second rate wood tiles. Especially since they don’t even seem to serve a real function. I should explain. Zeus and Hera is actually a pretty decent game, replaying it recently I realized I liked it more than I remember and the strategy involved is more complex than I had given it credit for. But the thing that really stood out the most to me were these horrendous wood tiles that serve as Zeus and Hera for the game. Every other character and effect in the game is represented by cards. Cards that work fine, I don’t think that anyone has ever played the game and felt that they were not getting the full game experience because it lacked crappy wood tiles. And if not for these two useless components the game would just be cards and could fit easily into a much smaller box, which would be an asset for the game and broaden the appeal. You can travel with it, it fits in your pocket, etc…Instead the box is mainly empty except for this silly plastic tray which is in there only to accommodate the wood tiles.

The art on the wood pieces reminds me of Stratego, sort of these strange gold etched outlines. Zeus is green, Hera is purple. Both are awful. Rio Grande games must have received an extra shipment of wood pieces and felt the need to convert them into something and Zeus and Hera drew the short straw.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Campaign Journal #2- Bowerstone and Beyond

The campaign started with the party being filled in on their recent happenings. They had been contracted by a longtime employer named Vespian the Black to deliver a package to the port city of Bowerstone. The job paid not a great deal (500gp) but the party was looking to relocate after burning some bridges in the area that they had been operating in as of late. Greedy mercenary types tend to do that. The party was aboard a merchant ship called the Holy Diver, captained by Thelonius Seasworn, and as they approached the city I gave them some background on the region.

Glee has some ranks in Knowledge (Local) and it has been established that he and Romulus have done some traveling in their careers as mercenaries, so he was the vehicle through which I imparted some background on Bowerstone and the entire island. They knew that the island had been ruled by the same ruling family for some time, the DuChamps. It was also a region that has a lot of racial diversity, just about all of the major humanoids are represented. It was also established that at some point in the past orcs were a slave class, though now many have been integrated into the mainstream. The party is aware that there are two other major cities on the island; Ocrist and Thundra. Ocrist has served as the seat of power for the DuChamps for quite some time. Glee and Romulus had gotten mixed up in their preferred line of work some time ago, but they had no specific contacts or allies in the area.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pandemic: On the Brink

After months of waiting for my preordered copy of the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion to arrive, I was finally rewarded with a package in the mail the other day. That night I got together with Mike, Katie, and Jesse to play the new game, but I did have some questions going into it. The truth is morale has been real low lately with team games. Between Pandemic and Shadows Over Camelot we are really struggling, victories are few and far between these days. While I was going through the rules for On the Brink everything in there told me that this just a way to make the game harder. The game comes with three variants on the traditional game; Virulent Disease, Mutation, and Bio Terrorist (in which the game is turned upside down by having one player go against the others) all of which just seem to increase the difficulty level. Did we really need this, seeing as how we routinely get our butts kicked? So we decided to not play one of these new games right away. Fortunately for us the expansion comes with a bunch of other things which increase the fun of an already very enjoyable game.

One of the best aspects of the expansion is these really cool plastic Petri dishes that are used for containers for all the cubes and pieces for the game. Previously players had no choice but to put all the components in the small bags that the game came with, which really isn’t all that bad. But the little dishes are real cool and fit into the theme of the game, they have little stickers to go on them that make them look like hazmat containers. An excellent touch. Plus, it does make the game a bit more organized. What they really should have included was something to put the cards into, instead of that bizarre, ninth rate cardboard monstrosity that the original comes with. Really, what is that? Maybe next time. The game also comes with some smaller pawns which is good because the pawns were way too big, it was sort of awkward when you were on a space with another player or a couple infection cubes.

Aside from the new scenarios the game also comes with eight new Special Event cards and seven new Role cards. Additionally there is also a revised role card for the Operations Expert, which I find to be hilarious. Ever since we started playing Pandemic the Operations Expert has been the most maligned of all the roles, drawing that in the game was essentially the kiss of death. There was something charmingly morbid about being him actually, so it was very funny to see the game designers essentially acknowledge this by issuing a “patch” for the Op Ex. In addition to his awesome normal power of building research stations, he can now also discard any card if he is at a station to move anywhere on the board. It’s not a bad power, but it’s still not great. What it does is allow him to fly all over the board and quickly build stations anywhere that the group wants. Certainly makes getting around much easier.

Much like the original five roles, the new seven are a mixed bunch of usefulness. The Generalist looks like she may be the winner of the bunch since she gets five actions each turns, instead of four. That’s real good. The Troubleshooter is also excellent. He can peek at the infection deck at the start of his turn, allowing him to sniff out trouble before it happens and he also can use cards to fly around without discarding them. The Epidemiologist can take cards from other players, much like the Bizarro version of the Researcher. The Archivist can have eight cards in his hand! He can also take city cards from the discard if he is in the matching city. Eh, nothing special there. There are also some others that I have not seen in action yet, so I will reserve judgement on them but all of these news cards really just decrease the chance that you will get the Dispatcher or the Medic, which still seem to be the best cards. Have these new roles actually made the game harder?

Like the new roles, I have not had a chance to see all the Special Events in action. We just took all the new cards and mixed them in with the old, so I am sure they will come up at some point. I think that my favorite is New Assignment, which allows one player to draw a new role during the game. The other night when we first played with the new cards I, ironically, drew the improved Operations Expert. I was able to build several stations in a hurry and then Mike used it on me to call in some useful backup. The card is sort of unclear if the draw should be random or chosen, but we went with random and I would up with the Researcher. Some of the other new Events include one that allows a player two extra actions on a turn, the ability to remove five cubes of a color immediately when a cure is found, remove any three infections cubes on the board, and a couple others of varying power. The rules also recommend putting two Special Events per player into the deck, which is a boon to the players if you have three or more going at it. The original game had five cards, so it equals a gain for the CDC.

I don’t mind that we keep losing at Pandemic, but I don’t understand why it keeps happening. I feel like we have pretty solid strategy, understand the game well, work as a team. Yet we always seem to come up a turn or two short. What usually gets us is that we run out of cards in the Player Deck, despite making curing our top priorities. The other night everything seemed aligned for us. We had the Dispatcher and the Medic, used the Event cards well, and we still came up short.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Campaign Journal #1- Character Creation

I’m back to DMing after about a five month hiatus (I did run a one shot over the summer) while some other players in our game ran things for a little bit. Honestly, I’ve been itching to get at it though and we started up a new game this week and I’ve decided to keep a campaign journal for the first time.

I think that a little background on our gaming group is necessary to set things up. We’ve been playing together for about three years and currently there are six players and myself. The majority of them had no roleplaying experience prior to our gaming (I’ve played for about 20 years). I had a great gaming group a couple of years back but it fell apart when half of the group moved away, so I decided that the best thing to do would be to take the people that I was normally hanging out with and turn them into gamers. The results? It has worked out great and I’m pretty sure that Tuesday night is a weekly highlight for most of us. I also really dig that the majority of the group are people who would have never ever imagined themselves playing D&D. I’ve run three long campaigns with these players; we always start at 1st level and wind up somewhere around 10th. Somewhere around 30-35 adventures in a campaign. We’ve had a ton of good times.

This time around we decided to start with a little more power so the characters are all at 9th level. We are also not a group that heavily optimizes, but I’ve encouraged them to use prestige classes and make characters that can really do some damage. I’ve also helped them put together characters that work well. They were each given 28,000 gp to purchase magic items and watching them go through the DMG and buy stuff was a lot of fun. They were like adventurers in a magic shop.

Going into character creation I told them that they were an established adventuring group, there would be no meet up in the first quest. As 9th level they also had a fair amount of power so I wanted to hear what they had done. Did they have enemies? Friends? What kind of quests have they been on? What were their great victories? Losses? I thought that this would be good for everyone involved. It would help me design hooks and plots that would appeal to them and they would benefit from having a shared history from the get go. So who are these intrepid adventurers? Let’s take a look.

Romulus Blitzbane is a half orc neutral evil Rogue 5/Fighter 2/Nightsong Enforcer 2. He specializes in two weapon fighting and sneak attacking. He fancies himself a master of breaking and entering and will do just about anything for money. He spent his gold on a pair of+2 weapons (longsword and handaxe) and some gloves of Dex and has gone the two weapon fighting route with his feats (including two weapon defense). With his sneak attack and two weapon his damage can pile up in a hurry, though his lowish hitpoints should encourage him to stay out of longer fights.

Mgabwe King is some sort of bizarre scythe wielding voodoo witch doctor. In game terms he is a Ranger 4/Necromancer 2/Abjurant Champion 3. This player has the most experience and he built Solomon to be pretty bad ass. I believe he plans in reveling in death, not just causing it (which he should do plenty of) but sort of making a ceremony of the whole thing. He has no qualms about doing dirty work, to the extent that I don’t think he can ever get clean. As a human with Favored Enemy (Human) I suspect some of his anger comes from self loathing.

At a young age the half elf Lela Bonnaire ran away from her gypsy home with a much older elf and learned the mysterious ways of enchantment magic and esoteric lore. She can fight a little too. For those keeping track this makes her a Fighter 2/Bard 7. Her perform skill is whistle! Focusing on social skills and enchantments I assume that she will be the face of the party. In combat she will be buffing her allies and firing her bow. Her main magic items are a Cloak of Charisma +4 and a circlet of persuasion. Cure light wounds is one of her first level spells, making her the only healer in the party.

As a former member of an elven military unit Alandia Leafwhisper learned what she doesn’t like. Mainly order and rules. The chaotic neutral Ranger 6/Scout 3 will serve as the primary guide and survivalist for the party, for as long as she sticks around. A true free spirit she seems to have little loyalty or use for the conventions of society. (This player plans on not being around for much of the campaign, so she designed a character that can easily come and go, for which I am thankful) She has a longbow of shock to deal some damage and a wide assortment of skills, including stealth and thievery.

Definitely the oddest character in the group, Glee Drango takes just about every stereotype of a gnome and turns it on it’s head. A trained killer this Rogue 2/Ranger 2/Fighter 2/Ghost Faced Killer 3 plans on dealing lethal damage quickly and often. He has a twisted sense of humor and, not surprisingly, gets on quite well with Romulus. The two of them have been paired up since before the party got together. Glee spent just about all of his gold on a single magic item, a ring of blinking. The ring, which causes him to blink in and out of the ethereal and material planes, has also had the effect of making him sort of crazy since he stole it from a sorceror some years ago. It also allows him to use sneak attack and sudden strike on just about all of his attacks. Low hit points and bad armor make him also rely on the ring for protection.

Playing the role of the ambitious, forward thinker is Henri DeGaule (human Sorceror 9). He has a pretty general list of useful spells; from direct damage to party buffs and essentials like dispel magic. He is the only full caster in the party which makes him very valuable, and also vulnerable. This player is also the most inexperienced, having only played in the aforementioned one shot and one other short campaign over the summer. With his high charisma I suspect that he will serve as a secondary face for the group, also aided by a circlet of persuasion. I also find it funny that there are two characters in the party with French sounding names that have circlets of persuasion. They were also created independently of one another, which is sort of strange.

So far it seems like this party is going to be petty, ambitious, cruel, and thoroughly evil. I am so into it. Fortunately I cut my teeth as a DM on just that type of group so I should be okay with it. I also really like that for the most part they made their characters together and there is definitely a group cohesion to them. They all have some degree of stealth, every character but the sorceror has Improved Initiative, and they all seem to be of dubious morals. I think that they will all be interested in the same type of adventures. The bard, in particular, has expressed interest in having a chance to be a double agent and get mixed up in all sorts of intrigue and scandal. I plan on doing my best to accommodate. Combat wise they should also be a lot of fun. They pack quite a punch, especially with the ability to get the drop on opponents, but they have very little staying power due to generally poor AC across the board and not too many hit points. I see battles ending quickly or going very poorly for the PCs.

Truthfully, it is a wonderful group of players and we have a blast each week. I’m really looking forward to getting started.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Knight base class

There are not many classes in D&D that focus on defense. Usually defensive prowess is obtained through feats, items, and spells; not the class itself. The knight from Players Handbook II seems to be the exception to that, with a plethora of options and abilities focused around keeping himself and his allies safe from harm. There is certainly a role for this type of character in most parties, especially if there is another warrior type to really focus on dealing damage. I also like that there is a class that is the archetypical armored and mounted warrior that does not have the rigid moral and religious code of the paladin, though the knight does have his own code that he must adhere to.

The basics of the class are a pretty nice assortment; full Base Attack, d12 Hit Die, 2+ skill points, and a good Will save. It seems a little better than the standard array for martial classes mainly due to the d12 and that the one good save is Will, which is probably the most useful save to have and will cover up for the low Wisdom that the knight probably winds up with. The skill list is fairly typical, the only notable exception being Knowledge (Nobility), but the knight probably won’t have too many skill points to spread around.

Many of the knight’s abilities stem from it’s Knight’s Challenge class feature. Usable a number of times a day equal to half the knight’s level plus their charisma modifier, the challenges available to the knight increase as they gain levels. By yelling out to opponents on the battlefield the Knight is able to get an edge for himself and his allies. One of the best aspects of the Challenge is that it is always used as a swift action, making it very easy to find spots to apply it and still being able to take other actions. The fighting challenge allows the Knight to mark a target, granting them a +1 to attack, damage, and Will saves against that opponent. This increases to a total of +4 by 19th level. It’s an okay ability and it gives the Knight the luxury of focusing on defense with their feats, knowing that they can fall back on the fighting challenge for a little offensive boost. Other challenges give the Knight the ability to draw enemies to them, give allies a chance to reroll saves versus fear effects, reroll a failed mind affecting save, cause weaker opponents to become shaken, and continue to fight for a little bit after going past -10 hit points.

At 2nd level the knight gets Mounted Combat as a bonus feat, which is pretty much feast or famine. If you plan on fighting from horseback than it is obviously an essential feat to have, however if you don’t it really has no uses at all. The thing is that it is going to take a bit of work to make the knight a good horseman, so I’m not sure how useful it is. For starters it is going to be based on Ride, which the knight has very few points to spend on. And Ride is Dex based, another area that the knight is going to be deficient in. As a DM I would have no problem allowing the Knight something different here. My suggestion? Combat Expertise. That’s a great feat for the Knight, for both mechanical and flavor reasons it fits the class really well. Due to the Int 13 requirement the Knight may never be able to obtain it otherwise, so I think it’s a good option. The other 2nd level ability is shield block. This gives the Knight an additional +1 shield bonus to their AC against one opponent. It is essentially Dodge with a shield. It increases by 1 at 11th and 20th level. Not a bad ability but it sort of dictates the style that the knight is going to be using in combat, making them a sword and board type of warrior.

At 5th, 10th, and 15th level the Knight gets a bonus feat that comes from a list. Most of the mounted feats are on the list so the knight can continue to pursue that, though it’s a long time to wait for some of them. I think that you would probably want Spirited Charge before 15th level if that was your thing. The list is not the greatest feats in the game, but there are certainly enough viable options than any Knight will wind up with something decent. Vigilant Defender (also at 5th level) is sort of a nifty ability. Any Tumble checks to avoid attacks from the Knight have the Knight’s level added to the DC.

My favorite Knight ability is Shield Ally, obtained at 6th level. As an immediate action Shield Ally lets the Knight take half the damage dealt to an adjacent ally, making him an excellent flanking partner for a rogue or any other hit point needy friend. At 14th level they can absorb all the damage to an ally, though they are limited to doing this once a day.

At 17th level the Knight gets the bizarre Impetuous Endurance. The fighting spirit of the knight is so great that he no longer fails a saving thrown automatically on a roll of one. Really? That’s a 17th level ability? They may not automatically fail, but they will probably fail anyway. A 17th level Knight has a base Will save of +12. Let’s give him a +1 Wisdom, and assume that he has Iron Will (which is on the bonus feat list). We can even say that he has that feat that uses Cha for Will saves instead, so let’s make that a +4. That is a +18 Will save, with the rolled 1 that is a total of 19. I suspect that most casters fighting 17th level characters are going to have DC’s higher than 19. And the Fort and Will are going to be even worse. Totally stupid ability. They have such a remarkable fighting spirit? How about a reroll on failed Fort or Will save instead? That gives them a more realistic chance of actually using the ability.

If I was making a Knight I would put my best stat into Con, followed by Cha and Str. Shield Specialization also seems like a good feat for them, or anything that can jack up their AC. If they can get Combat Expertise, Improved Disarm or Trip also seem to be good options. I can’t imagine that there is a better “tank” class among the melee classes in the game. Lots of hit points, a shield, defensive abilities. The Knight is really a support character, their job is to keep the squishier characters alive while they sneak attack or cast spells. It also mixes well with the Dwarven Defender, making the ultimate in party protection. One of the best aspects of the class is that all the Challenges and the Shield Ally ability are swift and immediate actions, so the Knight can still go about fighting, moving, or whatever else they want. Their best features don’t seem all that powerful, but when you consider that they are essentially free to use (action wise) it makes them much better.

The other interesting feature of the Knight is the code that they must adhere to. All Knights have to be lawful, but they also have to follow a code of conduct. The description talks about honor and being righteous, but the end of the entry spells out exactly in game terms what the code means. Sort of an interesting approach to controlling conduct, but it seems to work. Knights may not gain a flanking benefit in combat, though allies they are flanking with still gain the +2, Knights never attack flat footed opponents, and they never deal lethal damage to helpless foes. I like it. None of them are crippling to the Knight, but they have enough substance that it’s not a total throwaway. The flanking one is the biggest disadvantage, since Shield Ally means they will frequently be in flanking situations.

I would put the Knight on par with the better melee classes in the game. It can fight a little and has a ton of survivability, and the moral code makes it good for roleplaying. I think that my biggest complaint is that most Knights are going to resemble one another. They are all going to be horse riding, shield wielding, damage absorbers that greatly endear themselves to their teammates. You can do worse.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Last Night on Earth Hero Ranking

One of the aspects of Last Night on Earth that I really enjoy is the large selection of characters to choose from, or have randomly chosen, depending on how you set the game up. There is a pretty big disparity between the best and worst of them, so I’ve decided to rank them all! One thing I will say is that strategy and cards are more important than the characters, it is certainly possible to do well with a bad bunch of heroes. It’s really all about weapons and planning.

1. Sheriff Anderson: Guns don’t kill zombies, Sheriff Anderson kills zombies. Actually guns do kill zombies, which is what makes Sheriff Anderson the best hero in the game. Not only does he come strapped with a revolver to start the game, but his Man of Action power assures that he will never be without one for long. Whenever the Sheriff searches he can choose to pick up a gun as long as there is one in the discard pile. Since he starts the game with a gun, if he does not have one then there is one in the discard pile. See how this works? The fact is that guns rule in LNOE and Sheriff Anderson is always packin'.

2. Rachelle: Rachelle would be the number one if I were ranking my favorite characters. A curious out of town police officer, Rachelle arrives on the scene looking for a fight. She starts the game with a revolver, flashlight, and an ability to ignore any wound she receives on a roll of six. That is quite a package. My only criticism of Rachelle is that the revolver and flashlight are both really awesome, but if she loses them she does not have a ton going on for her.

3. Jake: The shady Drifter Jake Cartwright has a knack for turning up useful items with his Resourceful ability. Anytime Jake searches he draws two cards, keeping one of them. In a scenario that requires certain items he may actually be the best character to have. And since he is drawing so many cards he is usually a pretty good fighter due to most likely having a competent weapon as the zombies come crashing down all around him. I also really like his picture a bunch and his miniature is top notch. It is also not a coincidence that the top three heroes all have abilities related to items.

4. Sally: Despite her diminutive stature the High School Sweetheart may actually be the best pure fighter in the game. Her Lucky ability allows her to force a zombie to reroll any or all of it’s fight dice once per battle. That’s really good, especially since zombies are usually not rolling a bunch of dice. The two health boxes make her vulnerable, but it seems that she does not lose fights all that often. Her only drawback is that the revolver is the only gun that she can use, which I think just means that she can’t use the pump shotgun.

5. Amanda: The charming Prom Queen is one of the better hero’s in the game, relying on her looks and small stature to survive the zombie onslaught. Whenever Amanda shares a space with a male character, so eager are they to please her, that she grants them an extra die in any fight. Sounds more like a cheerleader than a prom queen, but whatever. The ability is rather circumstantial but a nice boost when it happens. Her real strength is her hiding ability, which essentially makes her a traveling cornfield. Whenever she fights a zombie she can roll before the fight starts and cancel the fight on a roll of 4+. Sure, it doesn’t kill any zombies, but it makes her a huge nuisance to the undead.

6. Sam: Sam the Diner Cook, former military, is the toughest hero in the game. The only character with four health boxes, he’s the one that you want slugging it out with the zombies. Unfortunately zombie slugfests rarely work out for the hero, so even Sam should avoid them. His Brawling ability to potentially cancel a fight card played against him does make him a better fighter, though a weapon would be even better. He should have a meat cleaver or something. In many of the games that we’ve played Sam’s glaring weakness has been exposed on more than one occasion. The zombie player can infect him with any of those cards that turn the hero into a zombie when they take another wound, thus nullifying the large amount of health that Sam has. That sucks for any character, but it hits Sam the hardest. Still, he’s a solid character.

7. Johnny: The quote on Johnny’s card sums him up pretty well, “I ain’t goin’ out like a chump.” Too true. Johnny usually does wind up getting killed, but no one would ever confuse him with a chump. His ending is usually spectacular. His Blitz ability is one of the most interesting in the game. During his move phase he can run around the board and fight zombies, and continue to move. His potential for destruction is unmatched, with a decent weapon he can decimate the enemy ranks in a single turn. He also wins fights on ties, which is like giving him a +1 to each fight die. However with only two health boxes the zombies only need a couple of lucky shots to take him out. Johnny has the highest home run potential of anyone in the game. Maybe he should be ranked higher.

8. Father Joseph: I don’t know what to make of Father Joseph. For starters he has one of the biggest handicaps in the game; he is unable to use guns. I don’t know why this would be, I can’t imagine that the Bible says something about killing zombies. In order to just be average he is going to need a pretty good ability. His Strength of Spirit allows him to sacrifice a point of health in order to cancel a zombie card on a roll of 3+. Considering how devastating many zombie cards are this is pretty good. The problem is that this ability is fueled by his health, and since he can’t use guns it means that he is going to be mixing it up with the zombies and short on health anyway. He is also immune to Last Night on Earth cards, so pairing him with Becky makes a pretty good combo. As the only Holy hero he benefits the most from the Faith cards.

9. Kenny: An outcast teen working at the supermarket, Kenny is able to focus his anger and kill a zombie in a fight even if no doubles are rolled. In order to use this ability Kenny has to take a wound (not a great option considering that he has two health boxes) or discard an item that he has. This ability, the awesomely named Cleanup on Aisle Seven, can be useful because anytime that you can kill a zombie is a good thing. But the cost is steep. In a one on one spot he can safely sacrifice a health to do it, but if there are other zombies around then he is basically sending himself to the morgue. And the other option is not much better, there are just not that many items that are worth sacrificing for a single kill and have it be worth it. In some scenarios the lighter is a good option, and maybe something like the jumper cables. I sort of see why the other teens don’t like Kenny too much.

10. Becky: Becky seems like she should be real good. In a zombie invasion scenario, wouldn’t we all want a nurse around? Especially a cute one like Becky? Especially in game where health is at such a premium? The problem with Becky is that she can heal the other heroes, but she has to be in the same space as them. Generally heroes should avoid being in a space with one another because of the devastating cards that cause them to lose a turn, so she runs the risk of that every time she uses it. And that is her only power. I have seen Becky go through an entire game without using her ability once, actually I’ve seen that happen more than once. Sorry Becky.

11. Billy: Someone may want to run a paternity test on Billy since he bears little resemblance to his father Sheriff Anderson. A misunderstood teen, he would rather run from his problems than face them. This makes him slightly better at running, so he gets a +1 to his movement roll each turn. Clearly not a power player, but I will say two positive things about him. One, his power automatically works each turn so you will get a lot of use out of it. Two, I’ve seen many games of LNOE come down to the last turn and often success hinges on a couple of movement rolls at the end of the game. If you need someone to get the keys to the truck or sacrifice himself to destroy a spawning pit, Billy may be your man.

12. Jenny: Jenny the Farmer’s Daughter is a total bum, I don’t know what else to say about her. I suppose her ability to keep hand weapons from breaking has it’s uses, but she should really be avoiding close combat anyway. Like with all the teen characters she has two health boxes, making her very vulnerable. She gets a slight bump in the rankings if the barn or cornfield is in play (she gets a an extra fight die in either area), but to take advantage of this she just needs to hang out in the cornfield which isn’t really a good idea. Oh, I don’t want to forget that she also gets a bonus when she rides that horse card.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hidden City Philadelphia card game

During the early part of the summer the Hidden City Philadelphia arts festival opened up and exposed unique locations in the city, filling them with art and performances and, in many instances, allowing visitors into spaces that are otherwise not accessible to the public. In conjunction with this project the Hidden City Philadelphia card game was produced. I was much more interested in this. The goal of the game is to build up actual Philadelphia neighborhoods to prosperity, the winner being the first player to complete a neighborhood with the required components. The festival focused on much of the Philadelphia that is off the beaten track, and while these elements are represented in the game the focus is more on the typical and the well known. I thought that was sort of weird.

Hidden City is for two to four players, but each player needs their own deck of cards to play the game. The cards themselves are totally lackluster for the most part. They are very simple and have no art on them at all, they are really just text. I guess the part that was most disappointing was that it seems like a great opportunity to include little facts about the places and people that are in the game, but it really does little of that. A good example of this are the neighborhood cards, it doesn’t even say where in the city the neighborhood is. Sure, I know where Logan Square is but I think it would greatly increase the appeal of the game (especially to out of towners) if some information about it was included, maybe a famous event that took place there or a bit of slang that the locals are known for. And I also feel compelled to acknowledge the total lack of South Philly in the game. Really, South Philly doesn’t get a neighborhood? Tacony is there. I see Fishtown. The best that South Philly gets is Two Street, thus totally ignoring the Italian Market, the Stadiums, and just about everything else. The cards are broken into several categories and they are easily identifiable by the different colored borders, which does help a lot.

Game play is very simple. Each player draws a hand of seven cards from their deck and then a single landmark card is placed in the center of the board. The game works on a resource and purchase system, essentially every card in play generates a set number of resources each turn, which are used to pay for additional cards. Cards are drawn each turn and many of the cards allows the player to draw extras. The landmark in play is shared by all players, allowing everyone to benefit from the resources that it produces. Example, William Penn’s Charter (4 resources) is in play as the landmark, and I also have Society Hill (4) and Mayor Michael Nutter (6) on my board. This gives me a total of 14 resources to spend on my turn to purchase new cards. With my resources I decide to purchase The Constitution for 12. I decide to not make any more purchases, thus my two remaining points are wasted for that turn. It is very easy, but also extremely cumbersome as the game goes on. By the last couple turns of the game Mike and I were both generating over 40 resources a turn, making it tough to keep track of them. The rules do suggest that a pen and paper may be helpful for his, which I agree with. However, I think it would have been better if the game came with counters or a less intensive system was developed.

The game is won when a player has a neighborhood in play and all of the components that it requires have been played on it. That neighborhood has now been fully developed and the player wins! Two Street requires that an Art, Education, Economy, and History card be played onto it. I also really do not like that the aspects of the neighborhoods are called components, it seems so robotic and cold. Actually, the whole game sort of feels that way. I suspect that the game design was purchased and then Philadelphia was just plugged into it, sort of like Mad Libs.

I really wanted to like this game a lot, but unfortunately it falls into the mediocre category. I suspect that I will certainly play it a couple more times, but I do not think that I will purchase a third or fourth deck and get some others involved. The main thing is that it loses steam as it goes along. In the first couple of turns each player has only a couple of cards in front of them, making it easy to keep track of things. But it quickly gets bogged down, collapsing under the weight of the awkward resource point system. More play testing would have benefited this game greatly.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One if by sea, two if by land, 120 if by air.

I am totally perplexed by the Legendary Tracker (Epic) feat found in the Complete Adventurer. Now, I really don’t ever play or DM in an epic level campaign so perhaps I am missing something here, but how is a character supposed to make a DC 120 check? I mean, that seems really absurd for even the most munchkinny of munchkin players.

The legendary tracker feat allows an extremely skilled woodsman to track prey across virtually any surface, including underwater and through the air. The DC for tracking an opponent through the air is 120! So how does one go about making that roll? I have no idea but I am willing to try and find out. First off, any character that qualifies for this feat is no joke. The requirements are Track, Wisdom 25, Knowledge (Nature) 30, and Survival 30. That is one serious ranger, but even then can he really track an opponent through the sky? Let’s be generous and say that our tracker in question is 40th level, and has 43 ranks in Survival (the skill that track is based on). Realistically I would think that anyone who is 40th level is probably friends with a wizard that has other ways of locating this person, but we’ll say that they are out of town. Our Tracker’s Wisdom is very high, somewhere around 30. That is another +10 as his ability modifier. He also has a Periapt of Wisdom +10, to give him another +5 to his Track check. Even though it is not entirely legit I would be more than happy to give him another +2 as a synergy bonus related to his Knowledge (Nature). 25 ranks of Knowledge should be enough to cover some atmospheric conditions that will help in this particular example. This man is also so serious about tracking that he has taken Skill Focus (Survival) for another +3 to his roll. I can’t think of an item that gives a bonus to tracking, but I’m sure it exists. And this guy has it. And it gives a +10 to his track. All together that puts his modifier at +73. We will assume that he rolls a 20 on his attempt for a grand total of 93. He is still 27 points short of tracking the elusive airborne creature. So how does he do it? Any ideas?